A story in three acts

This entry is part 4 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

The most basic story structure is the story in three acts. The three act structure has been used since . . . well, forever, but in recent history, the biggest proponent of this structure is Syd Field in his book Screenplay (although it’s been applied to all kinds of stories, not just movies).

So what are the structures in the three-act story?

story three acts

Act I is the “setup,” where we lay our scene (and our characters). This is where we establish the story world, our characters and their relationships.

That isn’t to say there’s no conflict here, nor that there’s nothing happening. If there isn’t some kind of conflict here, readers are going to get bored.

Act I is about 25% of the story, and ends in the first turning point. This is the point at which the story world gets turned on its head, and we get the story question (Will our hero(ine) win?).

Act II is the “confrontation” or the “rising action.” The name hints at what happens in here—the hero(ine) works on confronting the antagonist in ever-escalating conflicts. Things don’t go their way, of course, or the story would be over pretty quickly.

In the second act, which lasts for about half of the book, the hero(ine) learns and acquires new skills through these confrontations, arming themselves for the big confrontation at the end of this act/the beginning of Act III: the climax or second turning point.

Act III is the “resolution.” In the climax, we answer the story question from the first turning point. The hero(ine) uses the knowledge and skills s/he’s gained in Act II, which have made him/her strong enough to defeat the antagonist.

Sometimes this also includes the hero(ine) coping with his/her newfound strength.

What do you think? Can you see the three-act structure in your work or others’? Have you used this structure to plan or strengthen your work?

Some help from Wikipedia

Series NavigationBecoming a story architectThe story question

14 thoughts on “A story in three acts”

  1. I like to think of the end of the first act as the point where the character decides that he and/or the world must change, and he takes the first step to do so. It’s the first time the character *acts*, as opposed to most of Act I where he just *reacts*.
    I’d be interested in hearing more about the “story question.”

    There’s also some terminology confusion out there. Some people call the end of Act II the “Crisis”, and the “climax” is the Denouement in Act III.

  2. You mean, where he finally accepts the call? 😉 I have a tough time not thinking about all these plotting methods in terms of other methods. I could give you a list of what that point is called, and that’s a great way of phrasing it.

    Personally, I agree with Yves Lavandier, and I tend to include the climax in act two, as the culmination of act two. This makes act three very short indeed. I think you can get away with including it in act III if you call act III the “resolution,” since the climax is where we resolve the story question, but not if you call act III the “denouement” (literally, the events after the climax).

    The end of act II might well be the black moment (if the climax is in act III again)—the point at which it seems like all hope is lost. But I’m just telling you the accepted theory here. 😉

    The story question is the basic concept of the story—”Will the hero(ine) succeed in his/her quest?” In a romance, it’s “Will the boy win the girl?” In a mystery, it’s “Will they catch the murderer?” (And the answer is supposed to be yes on both of those!) My friend Annette wrote a great post on story questions.

  3. Now this really got me to thinking about my story structures. I do use the three-act-structure. It was brought to my attention along my journey of learning to write. A wonderful writer called Judy pointed it out to me one day and I’ve never forgotten it.

    In Act1 I usually start with the ‘setup.’ I lay out the scene, characters and relationships. I establish what the MC wants, then add plenty of conflict, but sometimes I end up with another question that has to be answered along the way. (this comes as the heroine tries to achieve her goal, so it’s part of her goal, but ends up as a big part of the ending.) She ends up with two problems to solve at the end of Act 111. (What I’m trying to say is, sometimes, I create the first question in order for the important question to happen, then I end up with two questions to be answered at the end.)

    In Act 11 my heroine works on confronting the antagonist in ever escalating conflicts. (I add as much suffering as I can think of.) She acquires new skills through all the confrontations that happen to her and arms herself for the two big confrontations at the end of this act. (I usually add a few twists and turns at this point.)

    In Act111 I answer both the story questions from the first and second turning points The heroin has used the knowledge and skills that she’s gained in Act11 which have made her strong enough to defeat the antagonist and the fix the other question that happened because of the first one.

    I always try to finish with a surprise ending with a few twists and turns along the way.

    Is it okay to have more than one question to answer at the climax? (I write junior fiction for children aged eight to twelve.)

    Thanks for bringing this up, Jordan.

  4. Re: is it okay for have more than one question:

    Yes and no. There should be a great many questions to answer in the climax, but there should really only be one story question. (Unless, perhaps, you’re writing a double-genre piece—I write romantic suspense these days and I think there are two story questions there: will he get the girl? and will he get the murderer?—but really, at least for me, these questions aren’t both resolved at the climax, they’re resolved at two different times.)

    Your story question might be: Can Molly help Furble get better? for example. But at the climax, you’ll probably also have to answer various questions of how she’s going to do that, with all the challenges she’s faced.

  5. The title to the story is Molly Gumnut Rescues a Bandicoot. So for her to find the injured bandicoot I had the teacher give the class a project to take a photo of a native animal for the school calendar. The goal being the best wildlife photo goes on the front page.

    Molly wants to win. In her search for critters, she rescues an injured bandicoot from the claws of her neighbour’s cat. She falls in love with it, but her family tell her that when its wounds have healed, it has to go back to its own territory, back in the garden belonging to the cat. So now she has two goals, one to save the bandicoot from getting attacked by the cat again and to get her animal picture on the front page.

    Everything goes wrong when she tried to get a picture and her parents won’t let her keep the bandicoot. They make her hand it over to her grandmother, a wildlife carer. They refuse to let her have it back to release in her own garden and insist it has to go back to its own territory.

    She has many more obstacles and problems, but her goals are to save Furble and get her animal picture on the front page.

    Can she have both questions and answered. (They are both answered separately in the last chapter.)

  6. Well, yes, you have to answer all your questions 😉 . The story question is the one that “controls” the story—when it’s answered, the story is over.

    Which question matters more? Does the outcome of one affect the outcome of the other? (The “dependent” question, then, would not be the story question—the “independent” question, the one that’s not affected by the other, is the underlying story question.)

    It could probably go either way, but I would still say your story question is “Can she save Furble?” Getting a picture of Furble (and winning the contest) are intermediate goals—she could get the picture of Furble in the middle of the book, and win the contest, and it doesn’t affect the outcome of the underlying question. If doesn’t get a picture of him, he can still get better.

    On the other hand, if Furble dies of his wounds, her “dependent” question is kind of irrelevant. She can get a picture of another animal, though, even if she *wants* a picture of Furble. But is the question we’re asking really “can she get on the front page?”? If Furble dies, do we even want to know about the answer? (Conversely, if Furble gets better, but she never gets a picture of him or doesn’t win, is Molly still going to be at least somewhat satisfied?)

    There have to be many intermediate goals in a story (or it gets boring), but there can really only be one overarching, main goal.

  7. Good post, Jordan. It’s interesting to look at the process in different analogies. Sometimes the only difference is in semantics… and we writers always enjoy a word challenge. 😉

  8. Thanks, Jordan, you’ve answered my question and I can breathe a sigh of relief. I can’t say too much more though or I’ll give the story away. 🙂

    Oh, there is one more question. Furble comes into the story at the end of the first chapter. Is that soon enough? The beginning of the chapter revolves around the classroom, the wildlife calendar and introduces the characters.

  9. Thanks, Carol! It really is a question of semantics. Very slippery.

    @Trisha—oh, good. And no, the end of chapter one isn’t too late at all. I mean, the three act structure says 1/4 of the way through for the story question!

  10. Jordan,
    I think the idea that a writer should think a little like a screenwriter is a good thing. The “act” idea seems to be a good structure for writing a good story. There is an idea called the Hero’s Journey and while it leaves alot to be desired about structure it has some awesome ideas in regards to character arc. You can find a post about it here. http://writingonthewallblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/plotting-with-mythic-structure.html

    In regards to Story Structure I have found something so personally amazing that I am gushing about it. It’s called Story Structure and it’s on storyfix.com by Larry Brooks. He also aproaches a story like a screen play with the story having four parts and certain places for certain scenes. I have re-read the posts over and over and have had amazing insights about my MS. I would definately go check it out it’s amazing. You can find it here: http://storyfix.com/category/story-structure-series

    Personmally I use both together, the structure for where things need to go and the Hero’s Journey for events to increase the character depth. You can see my blog post here: http://cmichellejefferies.blogspot.com/2009/09/editing.html

    I hope people go take a lok at it. I think it’s wonderful.


  11. Jordan,
    I just want to say thank you for writing this article. I am an amature writer with no formal training.I have begun a novel and after reading through this article you’ve saved me from waiting on inspiration to finish my first draft. It also seems you’ve also created more work for me in the process.
    Thank you again,

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